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Cook Street's Chef John Parks Talks Teaching and Cooking in Denver's Growing Dining Scene

Cook Street School of Culinary Arts, the downtown program that offers curricula for home cooks as well as budding professionals, recently offered a class in pickling and canning. I'd been to the school a couple of times years ago for corporate team-building events, but this time it was just my wife and me with a roomful of strangers. In about three hours, we learned about safe and sanitary methods of producing shelf-stable preserves and made pickled onions and cucumbers and two jams -- strawberry and tomato. We canned the strawberry jam and pickled onions for long-term storage, while the other preserves went home in plastic tubs destined for the refrigerator.

See Also: Cook Street's Eat Your Veggies Class Will Inspire You to Do Just That

I was most impressed at how the fear and mystery of preserving fruits and vegetables was dispelled by enthusiastic and knowledgeable chef/instructor Erin Boyle and a guest teacher, professional pickler Tyler DuBois of the Real Dill. The energy level was good, and the instructors kept the class engaged, while in the background assistants tidied up and prepped additional food for our dinner (which was included in the cost of the class), leading me to think about how the school was run and who's behind the smooth-flowing kitchen.

It turns out that man is John Parks, executive chef instructor of the culinary program at Cook Street. After class, I met up with him to talk about the school, his career and how Cook Street fits into Denver's food scene.

Parks has been working for Cook Street for almost nine years, but he got his start there as a student. He was looking for a place to gain some serious cooking skills after attending Kennedy High School, playing in a few bands and working a series of dead-end jobs in his twenties. "It's not stuffy, but I liked the integrity that I wasn't seeing in other schools," he says of his decision to enroll at Cook Street; he intended to open a catering business or build a career as a personal chef. "Both of my parents were teachers, but I was feeling entrepreneurial. I didn't see teaching in the cards."

But Cook Street hooked him with its hands-on approach, restaurant-style setup and dedication to "preparing students for what's actually out there," as he puts it. After finishing classes, he never left -- instead signing on to teach recreational classes for home cooks for more than five years before becoming an instructor in the professional program.

Parks has enjoyed both aspects of teaching; the amateur classes appealed to him because of "the immediate gratification," he says. "Seeing the impact on their lives is really cool." For the professional program, he likes how students work together (with no more than eight students for every instructor) toward a common goal: "There's nothing to hide behind. At the end of the day, we sit down to a meal we've prepared together."

Parks's approach to teaching centers on a passionate enjoyment of food. His curriculum focuses on the basics -- knife skills are big -- as well as grounding in French and Italian technique and a plunge into wine education, especially how wine relates to food. But he also insists that learning technique and letting the ingredients speak for themselves are not mutually exclusive. The school uses organic produce wherever possible and brings in whole pigs so that students can learn meat fabrication, charcuterie and other curing methods -- Parks mentions ham and duck prosciutto -- and make the connection between the raw foods and the final products.

"It's important to not have things exist in a box," he adds. Students learn to make rye bread from scratch before using it to assemble Danish smørrebrød, a kind of miniature open-faced sandwich; they take a more intensive version of the pickling class I took; and they get hands-on experience making fresh and smoked cheeses. Parks gives me a sample of fresh gjetost (a caramelized Scandinavian goat cheese), explaining that students had to simmer the milk for two days for optimal caramelization. When I ask if using a pressure cooker would speed up the process, he jokes, "We try to focus on methods used before 1850."

Keep reading for Chef Parks's favorite restaurants and least favorite food trends.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation

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